September 9, 2017

Editorial: Policing the use of military gear

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Wikimedia Commons / Oregon Department of Transportation

President Trump rolling back Obama-era laws regarding police equipment is a step in the wrong direction.

Trump’s willingness to talk or act first, and think later — if ever — means we citizens have to be on guard against erosions of the values we cherish.

Police armed to the teeth and ready to show you who’s boss — that’s one side of policing.

It’s a side President Trump clearly favors. He recently signed an executive order allowing police departments wider access to surplus military equipment, including bayonets and armored vehicles, undoing restrictions ordered by President Obama in 2015 after a series of events in Ferguson, Missouri, the previous summer, spurred by the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

Trump has offered fiery law-and-order rhetoric that undermines fundamental boundaries and practices of our system, such as the legal assumption of innocence and professional comportment when in uniform.

In July, for instance, speaking on Long Island, New York, he told law enforcement officials, “You can take the hand away, OK?” instead of protecting the heads of arrestees — “thugs” — as they are placed in the back of a squad car. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions later claimed the president’s controversial comments were “done in jest.”)

Thankfully his remarks that day, suggesting some level of police brutality is acceptable, were met with consternation and pushback from cooler heads and people who actually practice local law enforcement.

The president’s ill-considered, take-no-prisoners approach to complex problems is also exemplified by his insistence on a concrete border wall between the United States and Mexico; and his pardoning of Joe Arpaio, a former sheriff in Arizona controversial for his aggressive treatment of immigrants. Indeed, he was convicted of criminal contempt related to his defiance of a judge’s order to halt his department’s 18-month practice of detaining of undocumented aliens.

There’s another side of policing, and it’s powerful, too.

Practiced locally, and in cities and towns across the country, it takes the long view, and is “softer” except in one sense: It’s harder to pull off.

This community-centered, more personal approach puts law-enforcement personnel plainly and firmly on the same side as the people they serve. It gets results, although not the kind you can easily calculate or see overnight.

Worcester’s Neighborhood Response Team is a strong example.

A MassLive feature story takes an up-close and fascinating look at this team of about 10 officers, who spend time, particularly in Main South, speaking with residents, shop owners and folks of every description.

The officers make plenty of arrests, of course. The city, especially that section of it, has a constant fight on its hands against drug use, gangs, prostitution, violence, vagrancy and theft.

But this team also builds trust. Their faces are familiar, their demeanor respectful, and over time the officers have demonstrated a desire to be caring and fair in helping instill a feeling of safety and well-being in the city.

“The cops are cleaning up the streets little by little,” a woman says in the article. Not the usual kind of spokeswoman, she was in handcuffs as she said it, arrested on suspicion of crack cocaine possession.

“The addiction out there, the fentanyl, the drugs — it’s crazy,” the 31-year-old said. Tearfully, she also told the arresting officer, Police Sgt. Jason Gaumond, she needed help. He got on his radio and arranged for someone to speak with the woman about drug treatment once she arrived at the station.

Flickr / Joe Campbell

The Worcester Police Neighborhood Response Team is making a difference.

The presence of a reporter taking notes and photographs may have played a role in this striking anecdote. And certainly, police officers are human and don’t always behave perfectly. But day and night, year after year, the proof of the value of this sort of police work is shown in the way Main South and other communities in this city keep striving mightily, and often succeeding, against the forces that tear at them.

Foot patrols, crisis intervention teams, mounted police and other “old-school policing” — as Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent describes it — is the kind of police impact that takes time, patience, skill and wisdom to build, but pays off in incalculable ways.

It works.

There is a place for police work with an iron fist, but it’s rare and exacts a price. For massive emergencies — terror attacks, riots — we want and expect police to deploy the force necessary to protect the public.

But militarization of local police forces in any kind of routine way is not the community, nor the America, most of us envision or want.

Reaction to Trump’s decision in late August to increase access to free military surplus supplies has been mixed.

President Obama had rolled back the Department of Defense program — which dates to 1990 and is known as 1033 — in 2015, partly in response to events surrounding the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. Many faulted the police for insensitivity and escalating tensions by responding to protests of the shooting in full riot gear. Police walked behind armored vehicles and in some cases pointed assault rifles at the crowd.

It looked like footage from a foreign country or the civil disturbances of the 1960s. But any lessons from Ferguson seem lost on the current president. The same goes for other upsetting cases of racial or ideological clashes in recent months and years, sometimes involving failures by police.

We are glad that local police departments in Massachusetts contacted do not seem to have made undue use of military equipment under the 1033 program, either before or after Obama clamped down on the kinds of materials that could be acquired, according to the Telegram & Gazette. Also, it is sensible that requests for any free military surplus by local police departments must be cleared by the Massachusetts State Police.

We hope other states follow suit, and won’t be too quick to grab the grenade launchers, armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms and .50-caliber guns. Meanwhile, Trump’s willingness to talk or act first, and think later — if ever — means we citizens have to be on guard against erosions to the values we cherish.

A presidency as uncomfortable and controversial as Donald Trump’s offers something very positive, if we pay attention: lessons in leadership. It’s a chance to reflect on how we wish to live and be governed.

There is plenty of opportunity for disagreement. Our democracy encourages both independent thought and careful consensus as we try to strike the right balances in the issues that confront us.

But we deeply believe, and know that many agree, that a brute-force, top-down style — especially when it’s ill-informed — is not what we want or need from our president, nor our police.

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